Veteran record store slinger Hope Silverman details her wildest stories behind the counter. Musicians, they’re just like us—except they’re absolutely not. They’re pretty unhinged.
“There’s nothing as glamorous to me as a record store.” So said my lifelong god and fantasy object, Sir Paul McCartney, back in 2008, speaking in support of Record Store Day. “Glamorous” is an extremely generous characterization. A more on-point description would’ve been “fucking weird.”
At least that’s what it felt like for me. From 1988 through 2014, I was a record store employee in New York City. During that time I worked in two indie stores and two megastores. My roles took many shapes, from salesclerk right on up to a fancy-pants thing called “Regional Inventory Manager.”
Yes, both High Fidelity (book-film-series) and, to a much lesser extent, Empire Records contain elements of record store reality, especially in regards to the hyperbolic music conversation and “Island of Misfit Toys” quality of those employed (me included). But the reality is infinitely weirder than what’s been depicted on screen. Record store employment destroyed my innocence and trust in the world and gave me the opportunity to touch Paul McCartney. It honed my self-sabotage skills to precision perfection and made me lifelong friends. It was more fucking ridiculous and embarrassing than any movie. Here’s some stuff that happened at the record store.
“Sweetheart, sweetheart!” yapped Johnny Thunders at me one afternoon. “Listen, I don’t have any money but I really need those books!” It was 1989 and I was working at CBGB’s Record Canteen in the Lower East Side.
Johnny was pointing at copies of his recent bio, which retailed for $15 a piece, displayed in the glass counter case. “Please, I’ll trade you, I’ll sign some records and you can sell them for twice as much!” I had no authority to approve of this transaction but my boss wasn’t there and Johnny kept calling me “sweetheart,” so I did it. Gave him all three copies in exchange for him scribbling his name in Sharpie on a couple of albums. I knew this was wrong and I did it anyway. I’d never even been a Johnny or New York Dolls fan, but he really seemed to want them and so I just caved. $45 of merchandise, right out the fucking door, with no resistance from me. “Thank you, sweetheart!” he called to me as he left. My boss never noticed the books were missing so I never told him what happened. In fact, you sweethearts reading this are the first people I’ve ever told.
Back in the ’80s, the Lower East Side had a bit of a drug problem. At the end of the night, we would have to sweep the shop floor including the bathroom, and on more than a few occasions, I’d have to dispose of used syringes. The store was also a thieves’ paradise as the register was up by the front door and the record bins and bathroom were 40-plus feet away in the back. And so people would invariably get up to things because the staff was just too damn far away to see anything.
One night this strung-out, colorfully dressed, musicianly-looking couple came in. The guy made a beeline for the bathroom. Meanwhile, the girl quickly went to work distracting me, though I had no fucking idea at the time. She thumbed through the bins and a few minutes later came up to the front holding a handful of albums by Throbbing Gristle, grinning maniacally. “Do you have posters of any of these album covers?” she asked me. When I told her no, she laughed and said, “But wouldn’t it be cool if there were?!” She then held one up for me to look at. I gave her an obligatory, “Yes, cool.” She then went to return the albums to the bin.
Shortly thereafter, she and the boyfriend, who had now emerged after ten minutes in the bathroom, headed out. I was ringing up another customer so I didn’t see them leave, though I did hear a shouted goodbye from the girl as they whooshed past.
When I went to make sure she’d put the records back neatly, I saw that they’d taken the whole fucking “T” section. The bin was empty. They took at least 100 LPs. I shuddered when I saw the gaping space, grunting out, “Oh no.”
I’m still not sure how they did it, but I am fairly certain bags were involved. I was so trusting and oblivious that I didn’t notice a damn thing. My boss was livid the next day but forgave me, chalking it up to “this is her first record store job,” and “excuse her suburban Long Island girl innocence.” This incident is why I have always fucking hated Throbbing Gristle.
The shop closed a couple years later and like that Johnny Cash song “One Piece at a Time,” it’s pretty clear I was the one responsible. Yup, come on down to the Record Canteen, y’all, take whatever the fuck you want. Let me know if you need a bag.
In 2005, Chris Brown arrived at his in-store signing event at the Virgin Times Square store with 20 people in tow because he is a “superstar.” He also brought his pit bull. Our office was carpeted. As he was walking out the door of the office to go downstairs for the signing, his dog squatted and pissed on the rug. A long one. I was standing right behind Chris and the dog. We both watched, me in wtf horror, Chris in, I don’t know. After the dog finished, he looked at me sheepishly, mumbled “Sorry,” then turned and headed downstairs. He didn’t offer to clean it up, nor did any of the record label staff who’d accompanied him. That globe-shaped piss stain permanently turned that part of the red carpet burgundy. It never, ever faded and was there until the day the store closed in June 2009. I’m not kidding when I say that every time I stepped over that piss stain (daily), I thought of Chris Brown...which turned out to be a spot-on metaphor, I think.
Back in 2007, we did a signing with Paul McCartney at the Virgin Times Square store. As he was truly a lifelong idol of mine, this was a big, big deal to me. He was in our office before the event with his tiny entourage of two (his publicist and a photographer), so I met him in blessedly peaceful environs. I was unable to behave peacefully. When Paul and I were introduced he took both my hands and smiled. That was when I lost my shit. I did not let go and dragged him forward into my office to show him the picture I had on my wall of him and his beloved late wife, Linda.
Me: “Paul, I have to show you something.”
I then pointed to the photo. Why I felt the need to do this I still don’t know.
Paul: “That's my baby and me.”
I babbled aimlessly for several minutes, telling him how much I loved his touring band and that I was psyched that he was including “Too Many People” in his live shows again. This is the solo track where he famously attacks John Lennon in one of the verses. “Oh, you like that one, do you?” he said.
He then hailed his photographer over to take a photo of us—his idea—and so I got to hold on to him again. After that, he was gone, out the door and downstairs to sign autographs for the fans.
To review: I physically dragged Paul into my office, showed him a photo of him and his late wife, and told him I loved the song with the famously mean line about his deceased musical soul mate John Lennon in the space of a few minutes, maybe setting a new land speed record for complete inappropriateness when talking to a Beatle. Remind Paul of all his loved ones who have passed? Done and done.
As soon as he was out the door, I almost fell because I was shaking so hard from what had just happened. When I walked in my front door that night, I burst into tears and immediately began brainstorming ways I could justify booking another in-store because I needed to see him again. I understood for the first time the particular sense of loss one feels when they have communed with a Beatle and then watched as the Beatle walked out of their life forever. I’d seen this scenario depicted in countless docs, the crying at Beatle departures from airports or venues, but never understood the sensation until then. I had completely lost control. It was genuinely disturbing. But it was also the greatest thing ever.